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Boa Senior died end-January 2010 at the age of 80.

She was the last remaining speaker of Bo, one of the ten Great Andamanese languages.

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A Silent

A UN agency identified 198 Indian languages in danger more than in any other country. Its not a record to be proud of, but controversy rages about just how threatened the subcontinents linguistic diversity really is. Meanwhile, researchers are busily recording dying Indian tongues and occasionally announcing new ones.

By Debarshi Dasgupta (text)

rub r i k

Koro, spoken by about 1,000 people in Arunachal Pradesh, made international headlines in October 2010 when a team of linguists from the National Geographic Societys Enduring Voices Project announced it as a previously undocumented language.
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With less than 5,000 remaining speakers, Remo, an Austro-Asiatic language spoken by Orissas Bonda people, is classified as endangered. Most Bondas now speak either Oriya or a pidgin that has evolved from it.
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Darma, one of the 400 estimated languages in the Tibeto-Burman family, is an endangered language spoken near the trijunction of India, Nepal and Tibet. Shuttered houses in the Darma Valley are a startling metaphor for the silence falling over an entire way of life.
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inguists claim that every fortnight, a language dies somewhere in the world. On 26 January 2010, Indias 60th Republic Day, it was the turn of Andaman and Nicobar Islands to lose one. This happened when Bo, a Great Andamanese language at least 65,000 years old, perished with the death of 80-year-old Boa Senior, its sole speaker. A survivor of the cataclysmic December 2004 tsunami, she is immortalised online in a video, singing in Bo of the thundering earth before the great waves swept in. Boas brief, haunting drone conveys much more than its subtitles almost as if her song were a dirge for an ancient world, for people waiting for an imminent end. For Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at New Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been trying to document the surviving Great Andamanese languages, the loss is irredeemable. Boa Senior spoke one of the great languages of the ancient world. The entire universe is seen through the perspective of the human body, which is coded in the grammar of these languages, Abbi says. With her death, one of the few remaining links to that world has been cut. And there has been at least one other known, if less publicised, language
William Rozario, the last speaker of MalayalamPortuguese Creole.

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Bhasha Institutes Tribal Museum in the

extinction in India recentlythe death of Cochins Malayalam-Portuguese Creole, with the passing away of its only speaker, William Rozario, on 20 August 2010. With him went a 15thcentury language, one of the many IndoPortuguese Creoles, that has symbolised the identity of the local Catholic community for over four centuries. But occasionally, there are also startling new discoveries. Earlier this year, the news broke that linguists Gregory Anderson and K. David Harrison had identified a language, Koro, which was completely new to science. The discovery of the hidden language in Arunachal Pradesh made headlines, but was also hotly disputed. According to Gibji Nimachow, an academic from Rajiv Gandhi University in Itanagar who has studied the community, We have always known it as a dialect, even if distinct, of the Aka tribe, under which the Koro are classified. Anderson, the director of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages based in the US, says it was never presented as a discovery by them; that the finer details were tweaked by the media to get the message across more widely. But he still maintains that the National Geographic team, of which he was a part, was the first to scientifically analyse and identify Koro as a unique speech form. The perilous state of Indias many languages made headlines in 2009 when UNESCO released its Atlas of Languages in Danger. The atlas placed 2,473 languages worldwide in varying degrees of danger (vulnerable, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct), and claimed that 229 languages had become extinct since 1950. With a total of 198, India has the highest share of endangered languages, including five that are extinct, 42 critically endangered, six severely endangered, 63
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Few people realise that languages are more than just a means of communication. They are emblematic of the way a community perceives the world and, thereby, offer a unique insight into those who speak them and the cultures they represent.

definitely endangered and 82 that are the atlas has succeeded in flagging an vulnerable. Reactions to this atlas in India issue that has thus far been denied the have ranged from complete dismissal to attention it deserves. The point is that criticism. While the government simply even if we have the highest number of stated that many of these languages endangered mother tongues, it is still were officially not even recognised a worrying phenomenon. We need as languages but simply as mother to study, document and describe the tongues, the atlas was termed by some situation on a war footing, says Udaya linguists as too liberal. For instance, the Narayana Singh, a contributor to latter say that Khasi, termed vulnerable, the atlas and a former director of the a category for languages with restricted Mysore-based Central Institute of Indian uses, actually flourishes and dominates Languages (CIIL). After the release of the atlas, the ministry of human other languages in Mehgalaya. Most people think of endangered resource development announced the languages as those spoken by just a few creation of a committee on indigenous hundred; languages that seem destined languages, and began work on a white for oblivion. But for most linguists, paper on tribal languages. But why spend resources and a language qualifies as endangered when it is no longer passed on to the money on protecting such languages in next generation, a process already well a world that is becoming increasingly underway in many Indian languages. homogenised? Why not focus instead This is combined with other factors like on teaching marginalised communities the number of speakers, their proportion some of the major languages to help compared to the communitys total them progress? Few actually realise that population, how the language has languages are more than just a means of evolved in public communication, and communication. They are emblematic the availability of written documents for of the way a people perceive the world and, thereby, offer a unique insight into education and preservation. There may be dissent about the the people who speak them and the definition of endangered, but few can cultures they represent. In the case of Bo deny that by placing India at the top, and other Great Andamanese languages, they hold up a mirror to a tribal people whose culture dates back thousands of years. For example, Great Andamanese, a mix of the ten different Great Andamanese languages, has a word (raupuch) to describe a person who has lost his or her siblings. This tells us a lot about this society and the emphasis it places on family kinship, says Abbi. Also, the language only has words for three numbers (one, two and many), which radically challenges the theory that all languages have common fundamental structures. As well as discovering new worldviews, the conservation of endangered languages protects the identity of their speakers.

For these typically socially functions and becoming village of Tejgadh, near Ahmedabad. marginalised people, unviable for speech language is integral to their communities. sense of dignity and selfThe states skewed respect. If we want to stop linguistic policy has tribal people from feeling done little to arrest dispossessed, we have to this phenomenon. To reinvest in their culture begin with, an accurate and their languages, says picture of the countrys current CIIL director languages does not exist. Rajesh Sachdeva. Census Not since G.A. Grierson data shows that two out of collected data on Indias three tribals in India do not languages (between 1894 speak their native tongue. and 1928) has there been A glance at the distribution a detailed survey of the of these endangered countrys linguistic status languages in the atlas shows quo. The census, which that most of these languages counts speakers rather are spoken in remote than languages, does not areas, primarily around recognise languages with the Himalayas (especially less than 10,000 speakers the northeast) and in lessas languages at all; it just developed regions of central groups them as others India such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, were severely undermined during the under major languages. Because of this, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. period of colonial rule. Since then the very languages most at risk are the Promoting linguistic diversity also the situation has deteriorated, since ones ignored by the state. But saving provides greater access to indigenous many families, forcibly relocated by languages, says Professor Singh, is knowledge. Abbi recalls that Boa Senior the state closer to civilisation, have extremely challenging, given the size of was also a vast reservoir of traditional switched to Hindithe dominant the country, its complex administration knowledge related to local plants and language, and one that opens up more and the very limited human resources their medicinal uses. With just five economic opportunities. This economic allocated to the task. surviving speakers of the four of ten imperative is also at work among most The divide between major and minor original Great Andamanese languages, other threatened languages in India, languages and the official sidelining Abbi and her co-workers are frantically whose future speakers are drawn to of the latterwhich is enshrined trying to salvage as much as possible other major languagesHindi, Bengali, in the VIII Schedule of the Indian while they are still alive. Assamese, Gujarati, etc.in the hope Constitutionhas also set off power Andamanese languages and cultures, of a better life. In the process, deserted struggles among linguistic communities, like other tribal ones elsewhere in India, minor languages are performing fewer to the detriment of the weak. The VIII

The Eleventh Hour

An Assam without Ahom. Cause for panic?
at Dibrugarh University, says, It is also monosyllabic and non-inflectedit does not allow the modification of a word to express different contexts, like conjugation. Some find that complex. Can the language be revived for daily use? Given the status of Assamese in the region, Boruah is doubtful. It is not just a question of revival, but of survival. Even the other Tai language-speaking communities are becoming increasingly bilingual as they switch to Assamese, he says. The underlying argument is that the Ahom people, who arrived here as early as 1228, were exposed to Assamese far earlier than other groups, who arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Like the Ahom, the others are also switching over to Assamese. The total number of Tai speakers remaining is only around 300,000. But Ahom surely can and must be revived to the extent that allows us to translate the large number of manuscripts that are just gathering dust, Boruah says. Ahom is taught at government primary schools, at Dibrugarh University and at the Tai Academy near Patsaku in Sibsagar district, among other places. But teaching standards are poor, and students hardly have a chance to practice it. Puspa Gogoi, who compiled an AhomEnglish Assamese dictionary in 2007 with over 10,000 entries, says the language must be introduced in high schools and colleges to give people the opportunity to really use it. I speak Ahom, but have nobody to speak it with, he says. Given its similarities with other southeastern Asian languages, especially Thai, the government should look at it as a link language and invest in it. Meanwhile, as efforts to rediscover the Tai aspects of Assams history grow, so does the interest in Ahom. Scholars of the language are now looking at similar languages elsewhere. This is especially true of Chinas Yunnan province, from where some of the Ahom people came, and where a similar language (Tai Mao) is still spoken. One expert, Sangeeta Gogoi, travelled to Yunnan last year and received a delegation in January this year. Surely the language can be revived with dedicated international collaboration, she says. The roots of Ahom are still to be found there in the manuscripts and in its related languages. These can serve as the base to revive the language; the form may not be exactly as it was spoken earlier, but is almost 90 per cent like the original. So far, there is only one example of an irrefutably successful revival of a languageHebrew, which survived in sacred texts and went on to become the mother tongue of millions in the 19th and 20 centuriesby creating dictionaries in it, teaching it and using it in newspapers. Perhaps Ahom too, like Hebrew, needs its own Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to resurrect itself as a living tongue.

The Ahom script.


UNESCO published the latest Atlas of the Worlds Languages in Danger in 2009, it caused an uproar in Assam by including Ahom as one of Indias five extinct languages. Language chauvinists were faced with a fact they had chosen to ignorethe death of a language that has long shaped the states identity and culture. While they may argue that Ahom, which has a separate script, is not entirely extinct, there is little doubt that it is an almost dead language, with only about 200 speakers. No longer used for daily communication by the Ahom people, who number close to 10 million, the language only has ceremonial usages today, mainly during worship. The Ahom people came to Assam in the 13th century, mainly from northeast China, in search of fertile farmland. They founded the famed Ahom kingdom (12281826), and helped create a flourishing culture that is known in particular for its sacred texts and other manuscripts. Tai Ahom is one of the six Tai languages spoken in Assam and some neighbouring regions; the other five are Thake, Turung, Khamti, Khamyang and Aiton. One of the main reasons for Ahoms dwindling influence is that the Ahoms converted to Hinduism in large numbers and picked up the more dominant Assamese. The other five language communities are overwhelmingly Buddhist. Some argue that Ahoms linguistic complexity is also responsible for it falling out of favour. It is a tonal language, where the same word spoken in different tones has different meanings. For example, ka can mean crow, or to go, or the preposition to. Assamese is comparatively much simpler, says Dipima Buragohain, a doctoral scholar who has just finished her thesis on Ahom grammar. B.K. Boruah, director of the Centre for Studies in Language and a professor of Assamese

Members of the Ahom tribe.

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Schedule, currently an expandable list of 22 scheduled languages, obliges the state to help the languages prosper and make official documents available in them. The development of non-scheduled languages, on the other hand, requires no such obligation. The 2001 census recorded 100 non-scheduled languages spoken by about 3 per cent of Indias population: the very languages that have ended up on UNESCOs endangered list. The argument of languages versus dialects is one manifestation of this struggle, as the state promotes major linguistic identities rather than encouraging local ones. This ideology has proven to be especially alluring to young people, who often make the decision to reject their local languages, as not only do these languages represent access to and advancement through education, but also access to the global culture that is so desirable for this demographic group, says Gregory Anderson. He warns that local linguistic identities in India are subject to the same devaluing that caused the widespread abandonment of Native American and Australian Aboriginal languages in the languages, says there are three last century. Ganesh Devy, founder of Bhasha, an fundamentals required to protect a organisation that works with marginal language: Teaching the language, languages, says that such languages are publishing its literature, and spreading actually safer when they are left alone awareness of its existence among other by the government. Ironically, where language groups. Expecting many to raise the bogey literacy has gone up, the local languages have dwindled because of the imposition of cost-effectiveness in an exercise of the states official language. Indias like this, Professor Singh says these states, according to him, ought to be fundamentals need to be made easier made multilingual, with more than one and less expensive. One possible official language. This implies a more example is the CGNet Swara, a dial-in multilingual education system. Abbi service on cellphones that offers news recommends a model whereby children in Gondi. But then, as Abbi points out, are taught their mother tongue and the there should be no cost high enough not state language in grades I and II; followed to teach children their mother tongues. Meanwhile, as the state chooses to by the mother tongue and a medium of instruction in the state language in look the other way, other interested grade III; and the introduction of Hindi parties have stepped in. Christian missionaries have emerged as the largest and English in class IV. Kanji Patel, a writer in Panchmahali group of non-state protectors by far. Bhili, one of Gujarats many endangered Ethnologue, a language encyclopaedia
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Oraon woman with a baby.

that has documented 7,358 languages worldwide in its 16th edition, has become a veritable linguists Bible. It is published by SIL International, an American Christian linguistic organisation. Leading the charge on the ground, though, is the US-based Wycliffe Foundation and its army of Bible translators, who, along with partners like the New India Evangelic Association, are very active in India. A video on the latters website claims the imminent release of the scriptures in six languages in Bihar: Bhojpuri, Maithli, Maghi, Angika, Surjapuri and Panchparganiya. On the global level, Wycliffe aims to translate the Bible into every language of the world by 2025. With the launch of 71 new languagedocumentation projects every year for the past 9 years, Wycliffe wants to spread Christianity to the remaining

2,393 language groups representing 200 million people who do not yet have access to the scriptures. While it is indisputable that Bible translators contribute significantly to saving languages by giving them scripts and documenting them in books and audio recordings, there is little doubt that Christianity, which they introduce, overwhelms the local religions and cultures that these languages represent. For many linguists and anthropologists, saving these traditions is as important as protecting the associated languages. I believe that scientists of language should stick to language, says Anderson, who has seen some of the less-thanideal consequences, despite obvious, tangible benefits from missionary linguists. The only ideology I promote

is one that allows everyone to speak any language(s) they choose. The official neglect of many tribal languages in India has also pushed the Maoists to embrace them, in order to win over disaffected tribals. Gondi, a language spoken by over 2 million people but considered a non-scheduled language, has been the medium of instruction for schools in regions under the control of Maoists in central India. Left far behind in this game of linguistic one-upmanship, the government of Chhattisgarhwhere most Gondi speakers live and which has, until now, no textbook either for or in Gondi produced this year, for the first time, textbooks to teach Gondi, Chhattisgarhi, Korku, Halbi and Surgujia languages in grades III, IV and V. Subhash Mishra,

GM at the Chhattisgarh Textbook Corporation, hopes this will send a positive message to the tribals. Fortunately, there are groups in India whose zeal is focused solely on protecting minor languages, the people who speak them and the cultures they represent. Bhasha, which had set up the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh (Gujarat) in 2000, has been hard at work protecting minority groups, combined with healthrelated and educational interventions in tribal communities. It runs the Budhan Theatre Group, which promotes the cultures of denotified erstwhile criminal tribes; Himlok, an institute for Himalayan studies; and the successful Purva Prakash Publications Unit, which produces books and magazines in many marginalised languages. Earlier this

scripting it
A handful of language-experts tackle the problem by developing indigenous scripts.
Our language finally has a shirt of its own. This is how Ani Ginidi, an elderly woman from the Konda-Dora tribal communitywhich is spread across Andhra Pradesh and Orissa reacted when she was shown a copy of the indigenous script developed for the Konda-Dora language (28,000 speakers). For S. Prasanna Sree, a professor of English at Andhra University in Vishakhapatnam, it was the highest compliment she could have received. She also cant forget the two wonderful teardrops on the cheeks of an old man from the Valmiki community when he saw his grandson write his name in Kupia (6,600 speakers), his mother tongue. Sree, a member of the Kurru tribe, has been hard at work since November last year, giving littleknown tribal languages in India a fresh lease of life by developing indigenous scripts for them. Instead of adopting the script of a more dominant language, the professor has chosen to use easily identifiable symbols associated with the tribes in her new alphabets. For example, a bow and arrow is a recurring motif in her script for the Kupias, who are renowned for their archery skills. Likewise, the Gondis, who number over 2 million and are known for their affection for Shiva, have an abstract shivling in their alphabet. She has developed scripts for 18 tribal languages so far, including Kupia, Gondi, Koya (300,000) and Porja (less than 16,000). Other than Gondi, none of these languages had a script of their own. While a script might be essential in helping to conserve a language,

as it helps preserve cultural elements in a tangible form, is it necessary to create an entirely new one? Why couldnt the Telugu or the Oriya script be adopted for these languages, considering these are already familiar to many tribals? One reason is that many sounds in these languages are poorly conveyed by existing scripts. But another, more important, reason is that these increasingly educated tribal communities are now beginning to assert an identity of their own. These languages have no need to depend on Telugu. One must stop looking at tribal languages through the prism of mainstream languages, Sree says. There is also a growing realisation that an indigenous and independent script helps to boost their cultural identities and to overcome their longstanding stigmatisation as backward. So it is unsurprising to hear of Maoist groups that are working to create an indigenous script for Gondi

(the lingua franca of the Maoist movement) in lieu of the existing Devanagari script, to enable tribals to forge an identity separate from that of Hindi-speaking people. Even among Santhal speakers, there is a push for the use of the indigenous Ol Chiki script, instead of the frequently used Roman and Bengali ones. The scripts developed by Sree are being popularised with the aid of self-help groups and young volunteersand they are gradually making significant inroads. The scriptural charts are often exchanged at social gatherings. A handwritten wedding card in the Kupia languagethe first of the ten to get a scriptis expected soon. It will be a momentous occasion, says Sree, who believes tribal languages are finally getting the attention they merit from the authorities. A lot of our tribal culture has already been lost, as these communities move up the social ladder and away from their roots by imitating others.

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Members of the Toda community.

year, Bhasha launched an ambitious Peoples Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), which, when completed in about 5 years time, hopes to create a better linguistic democracy. The PLSI is a much-needed and timely response to the governments neglect of marginal languages. Devy says, India has around 1,100 languages and the Indian republic should become a reflection of all these unique worldviews. At the moment, our parliament only listens to 3 per cent of those views. This is a reference to the claim that 3 per cent of Indias languages are spoken by an overwhelming 97 per cent of the population, while 97 per cent of the languages are spoken by just 3 per cent of the countrys inhabitants. Elsewhere in Jharkhand, in the face of government apathy, the Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra (JBSSA) has emerged as the guardian of marginal languages spoken in the region. Since 2003, the JBSSA has helped writers and cultural activists of endangered languages like Mundari, Ho, Asur, Kharia and Kurux coalesce into a group that has become their best hope
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of survival yet. So far, it has published 25 books in 10 tribal languagesall of which are at risk, with the exception of Santhaliand publishes Johar Disum Khabar, a fortnightly newspaper, to keep the languages afloat. JBSSAs editor, Vandana Tete, is clear about what she wants from the government. We arent even asking that these languages be included in the VIII Schedule. All we want is a little respect for these languages by educating children in them, she says. Without it, people are entirely forgetting these languages as they pick up Hindi and Sadri. The cause of Indias endangered languages has gained international attention, with groups like the USbased Living Tongues, the UK-based Survival International and the French organisation Sorosoro all working in the country. The chances that endangered languages in India will survive will be strengthened if the state and groups like Bhasha and JBSSA throw them a line. While India, according to the atlas, has indeed lost five languages since 1950, most of the languages in peril

are in the vulnerable category and can easily be unmarked. The US, on the other hand, has lost 54 languages since 1950. If those languages that are no longer acquired or used by children are to be defined as endangered, then nearly 98 per cent of Native American languages and 95 per cent of Aboriginal languages in Australia are endangered. Moreover, in both Australia and the US, many languages are already moribund, with only a handful of elderly speakers remaining, says Anderson. This is currently true of only a small number of languages in India. As Indians strive for standards of living comparable to those of Americans or Australians, the country need not pay for its development by killing its languages and becoming as linguistically homogenous as those we seek to emulate. Fortunately, we still have time to ensure that the language that dies each fortnight across the world is not an Indian one.
A correspondent for Outlook, Debarshi Dasgupta loves languageshe speaks six and is picking up his seventh.

A dying language brings an American scholar to the edge of the inhabited world
By Dan Oko (text and photos) )


Christina Willis interviews Darma elders in Sela village. Below, she talks to Chaudangs about their tribal dialect.

suspension bridge swings above the Dauli Ganga River, 16km past the last motor stop in the Darma Valley, a hidden corner of the Himalayas. The village of Sela sits opposite an Indo-Tibetan border police checkpost. American researcher Christina Willis, a documentary linguist at Rice University, USA, has been coming here since 2001 to work with the Darma tribal community. As her partner and husband, Ive accompanied her on many of these visits. Sela is one of 14 traditional villages to which the Darma return each summer to farm, herd goats and make offerings to their family deities as part of an early animist religion. Christina is a leading expert in the little-studied language of Darma, one of the 400 estimated languages categorised as part of the Tibeto-Burman family. These languages are spoken across the Himalayan region in Pakistan, India and Nepal. There are around 2,000 Darma speakers, wholike other northern Indian communitiesare under great pressure to learn English and Hindi. As a language with no writing system, linguists including Christina classify Darma as an endangered language. Without documentationChristina spent more than 2 years transcribing tapes and working with consultants to understand Darma vocabulary and syntaxit could be lost forever.

Ive relied on tapes of songs and stories to make sure we have a reasonably complete record of Darma, Christina says. Its up to the community whether they want to find a way to teach and preserve the language. One point of her trip in the summer of 2010 was to deliver a bound copy of her description of Darma to community elders in India. According to the National Geographic Society, the world is set to lose 90 per cent of its 7,000 known languages by the end of the century. The plight surrounding Tibeto-Burman languages has recently come to light, thanks to the apparent discovery of a hitherto undocumented language called Koro, spoken in rural Arunachal Pradesh. The announcement surprised Christina. A smaller language group or population often chooses to identify with the dominant tribe or culture because there is prestige there, she says. Christina first came to India a decade ago, learned Hindi, and returned as a Fulbright scholar, spending almost 3 years in the field. Armed with digital recorders, a laptop and notebooks, she made her home in the mountains, learning the nuances of the language and the tribal structure, travelling, finding Darma speakers who had moved to the plains. Earning her doctorate, Christina transcribed Darma into a scientific, phonetic alphabet, producing a dictionary and a written grammar. Her

research continues to focus on recording songs, stories and ceremonies. In Sela this summer, Christina joined tribal leaders in an outdoor meeting area, where she conducted interviews under the watchful eyes of summer residents. She collected creation myths, heard political debates over a proposed road up the Darma Valley, and recorded the

names of food products and household objects. In the evening, we would return to our riverside inn and meet other Darma making the migration to the higher mountains. Like the language, this seminomadic, traditional way of life seems to be fading fast. Following the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the Indian government

classified Darma and two closely related tribesthe Byans and Chaudangsas descendents of Tibetans. As tensions with China escalated, the border between the two nations has remained closed to trade. The regions indigenous groups were left with limited options. Some resisted their government entitlements; others rejected the Indian governments tribal label of Bhotia, derived from the Hindi words for Buddhist and Tibetan. Noting that their religious practices are an amalgam of animism and Hinduism, they prefer the term Rung or Rang. Others have moved to the plains, taking advantage of incentives for Scheduled Tribes. As per the latest census, the Darma are the largest of the Rung tribes. These days, few Darma visit the valley. With 50,000 residents, Dharchula in Uttarakhand is a home base for all the Rung tribes. Dharchulas residents also comprise members of the Indian army protecting the international border, and a hydroelectric dam at the base of the Darma Valley brings in a workforce of plainsmen. Development is coming is a common refrainyet hardly anyone considers the price. Tools for language preservation have proven elusive. Still, its possible that Christinas research offers a lifeline for the Darma language. Ive wanted to make a project like this happen for some time, says B.S. Bonal, a government wildlife official, based in Assam. But were happy to have outside help, if thats what it takes to get the job done.

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